Staging the surreal with Italian photographer and co-founder of Toiletpaper, Pierpaolo Ferrari
The provocative imagination of the colorful aesthete comes to life in his triplex studio, Milan
ZEIT × FvF
Interviews > Staging the surreal with Italian photographe…

A fashion model curls her hair using hot dogs. A giant hand clips off a bird’s wing with a pair of scissors. A pair of dress shoes are filled to the brim with tomato-sauce covered spaghetti. Two lipstick kisses mark the inside of a toilet bowl.

We’ve entered the provocative imagination of Pierpaolo Ferrari, the eccentric Italian photographer whose colorful surrealism is easy to spot and difficult to forget. Pierpaolo’s bold style pervades his spacious triplex studio in Milan where he lives, works, and plays. Filled with furniture that he designed under the Toiletpaper magazine—Pierpaolo’s wildly successful bi-annual publication with artist Maurizio Cattelan—the studio is vibrant and playful. “I love the house!” Pierpaolo exclaims while making an espresso, “I need a place to be inspired, and to inspire the people who work with me. Creativity is mindset, and you need to give emotions.”

This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online. Head over to ZEIT Magazin Online to see more images and further insights on Pierpaolo.

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They only had one shot to capture this image, Pierpaolo laughingly explains: the frog didn't want to be photographed!

“It’s the surprise, you know? Part of the joy of working with us is the unexpected. You don’t know what you’re going to get!”

Having begun his career in advertising in the ’90s, Pierpaolo credits his colorful, pop-like style to his early mentors in the agency world. Today, he continues to work with design-forward brands like Kenzo, Maison Kitsuné, Alitalia, and Artemide, along with publications like The New York Times, Die Zeit, and Le Monde. Fame outside of the advertising world came when Pierpaolo co-founded Toiletpaper with artist Maurizio Cattelan, a purely image-based photographic magazine that melds his style with Maurizio’s provocative sense of humor.

Outside on Pierpaolo’s spacious balcony, the great Milanese sky starts to open up, and he leads the way downstairs to the photography set. Filled with colorful furniture and random objects—think armchairs covered in a spaghetti al pomodoro print—he sits at the editing station. “I always try to find people who believe in what we do. Especially because they don’t know what we’re going to do, and they like it! It’s the surprise, you know? Part of the joy of working with us is the unexpected. You don’t know what you’re going to get!” Whether a long collaboration with a publication expecting a picture a week, or a last minute call from a photo editor who wants an image in a matter of hours, the element of surprise is central to Pierpaolo’s creative collaborations.

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One of Pierpaolo's covers for Zeit Magazin
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Pierpaolo sent the creative director of L'UOMO a picture from the set with his smartphone after a shoot: including some emojis because he thought they were funny. Somehow, this version ended up on the cover, replacing the picture he had taken with his professional camera.
Some of the surrealist merchandise from Toiletpaper

The Passion and Provocation of Pierpaolo's Imagery

A selection of photography and design from the Milanese creative

“It’s like if you’re invited to the best party of your life, where everybody is super drunk, but you are sober and sitting and watching everybody vomit. It’s very funny!”

“If you call me, and you have a picture in mind and you want me to do that picture—you need to call someone else. Someone who is good at interpreting your ideas. We want to know the feeling that you’re going for, but after that we go our own way.” Having established an impressive portfolio Pierpaolo is now able to pick and choose his clients.

Without the fear of losing business, he is able to take creative risks and push his artistic output further. He leans forward and says, “When we know what we do too well, it means we need to the opportunity to fail—I like changing constantly, it’s a way to fight your ego,” he says. “You know when you repeat yourself, in any work—especially photography, when you find your position, when you find approval, you need to move. You need to change. It’s the moment you need to change.”

For Pierpaolo, vulnerability is a key ingredient in producing a strong image. When I do a portrait, I shoot very few pictures, because what interests me is the tension you get at the very beginning. I don’t want the person to get too confident at the shoot. That tension, it’s something real. It’s something you cannot control.” He brings over his enormous Linhof Technika, a metal folding camera that looks ancient. To create this air of tension, Pierpaolo often uses the impressive device as a tool. “First of all you don’t need to shoot a lot. It’s single film. And, it’s a camera that gives the subject a very strong feeling of seriousness. Since I shoot a lot of people who are involved in culture in different ways; artists, actors—they recognize the special camera. It has a presence during the shoot.”

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“Maurizio was in the bathroom, and I called out, ‘Mauri, what will we name it!?’ and he responded, ‘Toiletpaper!'”

Pierpaolo gently puts the camera away in its large case and takes out the latest issue of Toiletpaper. When shooting images for the magazine, he prefers to go digital. “We use the camera more like a video. We move around the object, we move around the set, we go in and out, we observe our setting from multiple angles. The digital camera allows for the sharp and glossy images that hold up well when printed in various formats; on billboards, on furniture, on paper. “We don’t put our images in frames—we don’t consider a picture an artwork. We consider the object in the frame the artwork.”

The concept of democratizing distribution is central to the Toiletpaper project. The duo have not put on a gallery exhibition, and have chosen instead to print their images on items they mass-produce and sell online. “We don’t want to be considered artists. We want people to be inspired by the way that we never stop producing. We don’t give any importance to the classic way of presenting your work, or to the art market.” Toiletpaper gained recognition with the public, mostly through social media channels, before the art world took notice. “I don’t have Instagram, and we don’t run a Toiletpaper Instagram. First of all, I don’t want to show you my picture on a small device. But I like the idea that other people can take the pictures of our work and make it go around. I appreciate the internet, but I also like not being a part of it. It’s like if you’re invited to the best party of your life, where everybody is super drunk, but you are sober and sitting and watching everybody vomit. It’s very funny!”

Pierpaolo rises and walks around the colorful studio. He smiles, thinking back to 2009 when the magazine was first imagined. “Maurizio was in the bathroom, and I called out, ‘Mauri, what will we name it!?’ and he responded, ‘Toiletpaper!’” He laughs and points out an image of a chicken with its insides on display. Taking a closer look at what often goes unseen provides Pierpaolo with endless inspiration. The city of Milan itself; the architecture, the food, its unflinching status as a design capital, provides the photographer with plenty of material. He points to the ceiling and looks out the window: “If you look up, you start to realize there’s a whole other world there. Especially here in Milan, because it was bombed and later rebuilt. There were laws that allowed people to add a few floors more, and often there’s a different architectural style from the original building, maybe from the 1800’s, then from the 1950’s it changed.” Pierpaolo reaches down to tie his shoes, covered in a snake pattern created for Toiletpaper. He looks around his vivid space and grins. “I’m always getting inspired here.”

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Pierpaolo's Linhof Technika, his camera of choice
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The creative director of Monde Magazine, Eric Pillault, visiting Pierpaolo in his courtyard

Thank you Pierpaolo, for giving us a small glimpse into the wildly colorful world your mind inhabits: we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there.

To see more from Pierpaolo, you can visit his website here or Toiletpaper here. If you fancy a jaunt to Italy without leaving your seat, you can visit past FvF stories from Milan here. For more from the world of independent publishing, visit our Print Matters series here.

Text: Zoe Cooper
Photography: Robert Rieger